Watershed: First thoughts

What will need to be kept open. An interim assessment of the Afghan crisis, 20 years after 9/11. By Thomas Rudhof-Seibert.

Even if no one could have expected the Afghan state to collapse in the space of three days: The German Federal Government’s failure to evacuate Afghans whose lives are on the line was quite simply a disgrace. It had actually been clear for over a year that the country and its nearly 40 million inhabitants were going to be left at the mercy of religious fascism. Once the US announced it was going to withdraw as quickly as possible, first under Trump and then Biden, it was clear that all its allies would withdraw at the same time - and that hundreds of thousands of Afghans would have to flee to save their lives. So Western troops and their governments could and should have prepared for this moment.

There should have been evacuation plans whose implementation should have been ensured. The entire operation should have been discussed first and foremost with those who needed evacuating: who still need evacuating. And: it should not have been organised as a humanitarian operation; it should have been organised as a political operation. That is precisely what should have been communicated to the Taliban. None of this happened, not one iota of it. Instead, retreat descended into flight. Instead, tens of thousands of Afghans had to try every day for more than ten days to make it into the airport to be flown out if they were lucky. The whole world witnessed this disaster live. A disaster that reached its climax on August 26, the day of the Islamic State attacks that had been expected all along. More than 80 people died. They were not the first to die during this period, nor will they be the last.

German priorities

The West has airlifted its own citizens, but very few Afghans. The German operation’s failure is shamefully blatant: out of the 4921 people airlifted to Germany, only 248 of them were Afghans who had helped German forces, if you include their family members, just over 900 people. Given there were well over ten thousand applications, one has to say: 900 out of well over 10,000. More are expected, including Afghan staff of German NGOs. The Chancellor admitted “that this would not be easy. They had previously misjudged the situation”. We have since learnt that a first plane was supposed to take off in June from Mazar-i-Sharif, the city home to the Bundeswehr’s largest military camp. Horst Seehofer and his ministry for state security prevented it in a racist bid to stop migration.

If the Federal Republic of Germany took its human rights obligations seriously, this would now be leading to a political and legal reckoning. Though it would not just be Seehofer’s ministry that would be being taken to court. No one stopped him: not the Federal Foreign Office, not the Federal Ministry of Defence, not the Federal Chancellery. Why? It’s election campaign time in Germany. The coalition parties are not the only ones who want to pander above all their German voters, to the voters who are expected to vote “German”. Therein lies the disgrace. The disgrace of those in power, of their parties, of these voters.

First look back

This story first began with the attacks on September 11, 2001, which the West responded to with “Operation Enduring Freedom”: the first move in the “war on terror” that was to replace the West-East confrontation. There were simultaneous military operations staged in the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, Africa within and south of the Sahara, and Afghanistan. The official reason for the attack on Afghanistan was the refusal of the first Taliban government in power since 1996 to take action against the al-Qaida network responsible for 9/11. Another reason was certainly the hard-to-top symbolic challenge to the West in the form of blowing up the centuries-old Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley half a year earlier.

Supported by US Air Force bombing, units of the Mujahedin conquered Kabul just one month later. In December 2001, the US secured UN Resolution 1386 legitimising the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under which the Bundeswehr also operated. In 2002, a transitional government was formed. Elections followed in 2004, making Hamid Karzai the first president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, followed ten years later by Ashraf Ghani: representatives of an Afghan ruling class closely tied to the occupation and embroiled in the fiercest of internal rivalries, who over all these years worked solely and singularly for their own account. When he fled Kabul, Ghani took multiple luxury cars and millions in cash with him.

The failure of ISAF troops to defeat the Taliban, despite multiple reinforcements over the years, was also down to the shamelessness of their Afghan allies. More important, however, was the violence the “liberators” wrought upon the people of Afghanistan. Their victims were not systematically recorded until 2009 onwards, with the number of civilian deaths last amounting to over 100,000, many of whom died in the many years of bombing. This terror did not achieve its aim though: not only the reorganised Taliban, but also the Mujahedin militia and the drug mafia remained masters of their own weapons.

At the same time, neither the ISAF countries nor the Afghan state managed to improve the country’s disastrous economic situation, which, along with the incessant violence, is the biggest reason for the migration movement that has continued unabated for decades. 70 per cent, by some estimates even 90 per cent of Afghans live below the poverty line, with 18 million currently facing the threat of hunger. One in two. Around 2.7 of the approximately 38 million Afghans already live abroad today, and another 5.2 million have experienced migration. In 2019 alone, more than 100,000 people fled the country, and 2.6 million people are internally displaced.

The Economy of Violence

But Afghanistan doesn’t just suffer from violence: Afghanistan lives off violence. This applies directly, of course, to the members of all armed forces and their families, including the Taliban. Even if the core of the movement consists of politically highly motivated cadres existentially prepared to fight to the death, for the majority of the 70,000 fighters what counts first and last is the income they get from it. The army and the police are no exception, nor are the members of the Mujahedin militia. The dregs of the economy of violence also, of course, include crime that dominates all areas of life, ranging from mugging and kidnapping to corruption, always underlaid by violence.

After all, the state itself and its bureaucracy live off violence, and even the Afghans who work for non-governmental organisations and are paid from violence-related humanitarian aid funds, even where they are doing good, indispensable work, live off violence. Basically: anyone in Afghanistan who does not derive their income from the exercise of violence or from the regulation of violent relationships has no income at all and belongs to the surplus population without any prospect of securing a livelihood. This already held true in 2001, it continues to hold true today and will continue to hold true tomorrow.

Second look back

The Afghan conflict was and is a post-colonial conflict, a conflict of bloc confrontation and a conflict of the global empire. It dates back to the creation of the Afghan monarchy in the 19th century, continues with the transition first to a bourgeois, then to a people’s republic, escalates with the invasion of the Soviet army, then with the rule of the Mujahedin and the Taliban, finally with the invasion and twenty-year presence of ISAF, which is now being followed by the second Taliban regime. Across the ideological differences, however, the conflict feeds on a deep grammar of ethnic-religious divisions. But this grammar itself is not simply based on the fact of more than ten different ethnic groups inhabiting Afghan territory in its current form. Nor is it the result of the wide range of 50 languages and 200 dialects. Ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity only became a deep grammar of violence with the “Great Game”, the competition between Great Britain and Russia for hegemony over the disintegrating Persian Empire. Both colonial powers failed, the British despite the three “Anglo-Afghan wars” during the course of which in 1842 – to give but one example - they gave their soldiers free reign to plunder the newly conquered city of Kabul for two days, leaving the historic bazaar burned to the ground.

The failed colonial attempt to take the country, however, left behind the project of creating a “national” state, that is to say a state with ethnic-religious majorities, in the country that has only since that time been called “Afghanistan”, and which for centuries used to be called “Khorasan” or “Kabulistan”. Only then did the never conflict-free ethnic, linguistic and religious differences become the flashpoint for violence. The name “Afghanistan” says it all: initially it was only used to designate members of the numerically largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In the post-colonial state, they laid claim to the political, military and economic power, including the power to define what would now become the “Afghan nation”: a disastrous process afflicting European-colonised countries all over the world following their “national liberation”.

The group hit hardest by this curse was the Hazara. They speak Persian and religiously are part of the Shia, whilst the majority of the population of Afghanistan are loyal to the Sunni. Albeit imprecise estimates say their numbers have been reduced to less than half in the last hundred years; up to 3,000 Hazara were targeted and murdered under the first Taliban regime, often by public decapitation. In the last five years, over 1,000 Hazara have been victims of attacks. So it is no coincidence that Hazara still call the country they share with their oppressors Khorasan. No coincidence either that this name is also used by the Afghan section of the Islamic State: In both cases, it references pre-colonial times.

A far-reaching interlude

In the 1970s, the post-colonial conflict morphed into the West-East bloc confrontation. The turning point was to be the coup in the family of the last Afghan Shah, leading to the founding of the first Afghan republic in 1973. In 1978, this was followed by the coup by a group of young officers close to the “People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan”, a Marxist-Leninist organisation established by 27 intellectuals in 1965. Even then, the PDPA was already split into two wings whose political-ideological differences had ethnic undertones. The new government radicalised the modernisation policy the monarchy had already pursued, in turn also radicalising the resistance virulent above all among the poor peasant majority. In the space of just a few months, the conflict escalated into a civil war, which the Soviet army intervened in that same year. Afghanistan had now become one of the main theatres of the West-East confrontation, and the defeat of the Soviet armed forces in 1989 a key contributor to the defeat of the entire Soviet-dominated bloc.

Recalling this interlude is indispensable because it makes it understandable why violence and misery did not lead to the formation let alone assertion of an emancipatory left option in Afghanistan either. In fact: this interlude is exemplary of the story of the East-West confrontation, and in turn also of the story of “real-life socialism” in general, which makes it possible to understand why, not just in Afghanistan, fascism rooted in religion became the outside of the world order which emerged not only from the victory of the capitalist West, but also from the defeat and the failure of this socialism preceding it.

The end of the East-West confrontation also defined the history that followed the 2001 intervention, which is itself part of the “war on terror”. With its victory over the Soviet-dominated bloc, the bloc of Western states proclaimed the dawn of a world order in which human rights, democracy and capitalism would find each other forever: Many called it the “end of history” at the time. The globalisation of capital, parliamentarism and NATO was supposed to secure this end. The intervention in Afghanistan and the intervention in Iraq two years later were supposed to dot the “i” and complete what had previously been attempted by the intervention in the Yugoslavian civil war - it too a defining moment in the passage from bloc confrontation to the new world order. It was not just the governments participating in the ISAF mission and in the “coalition of the willing” that agreed on this, but also large sections of Western societies and those that were at least formally included in the West. The imperial consensus also met with approval from a left wing that was quite rightly disoriented at the time.

Crisis as the norm and the normal state

A year before the intervention in Afghanistan, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt published their book “Empire”, which would define the left-wing debate of the years to follow. In it, they place the new world order conceptually back in the history of the great empires and find what at first glance is a very simple turn of phrase, that “Empire as a field of investigation (is) defined first and foremost by the simple fact that there is a world order.” In the next step, though, they base this definition on a second, not quite so simple thesis whereby the crisis in the Empire, and with it the crisis of the Empire itself, is not a merely temporary impairment or disturbance of its normal state, to be remedied as soon as possible. Instead, the crisis is and remains nothing but the logically and empirically regulating “norm” of imperial sovereignty itself: Quite simply it is and remains its normal state.

What these two turns of phrase mean in their context was something that the Empire itself, and all of us in the years that followed, still had to learn. The flight of ISAF troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power seal this lesson. But this is not to say that the Empire has suffered a defeat and that Afghanistan is no longer a province of the Empire. On the contrary, in the immediate aftermath of Syria’s ordeal, Afghanistan is likely to become the paradigm for what will happen in a growing number of such provinces in the years to come. If human rights, democracy and capitalism are to be united in the Empire, this will apply only to its global North, and only to a very limited extent to its global South.

If, as the environmental crisis escalates, ever more and ever larger areas of the planet become regions of devastation and in turn regions of only partially regulated economies of violence, then it will be neither human-rights activists or democrats who are needed, but rather determined enforcers of order. These will include the Taliban, but also the Assad regime and Erdogan regime; they will probably also include the gangs the Empire is currently leaving Haiti at the mercy of. Across the differences between these order enforcers, they will resemble each other in one key feature of their policies: they will rule devastation-stricken regions by enforcing Empire-approved and sponsored systems of inclusion and exclusion over their inhabitants as well as the inhabitants of neighbouring regions, and by granting access to any potential exploitable resources. Even if they won’t be given a completely free reign to do what they want, they will have a carte blanche in using the necessary force. The policy towards Erdogan shows what will be possible. Within a limited framework they will be allowed to place themselves under the protection of sometimes one, sometimes the other major powers of order, whose competition itself forms part of the permanent crisis of the Empire, they will be allowed to be a little or even more pro-Russian and pro-Chinese, they will even be allowed to be “Islamist”: at least as long as they come to an arrangement with the US and Europe.

Who owns the crisis?

If crisis is the norm and the normal state of Empire, this does not mean that Empire will survive its crisis. Its demise can commence anywhere and at any time. As things stand, the planet itself, which is not reliant on being inhabited by human societies, could take care of this. It could also be triggered by its current main antagonist, religious fascism. Its incorporation into the order-enforcing power is not yet sealed. The Empire has been met with resistance from the very beginning, however, and continues to meet it in all those places where there is an actual fight for democracy and human rights. The invasion of Iraq triggered a globally communicating anti-war movement. Since 2010, the chain of major democracy uprisings in the global South has been unbroken. The Empire may be able to interrupt global migration movements time and again. But so far it has failed to stop them permanently at any of its borders. But victory or defeat for the Empire also hinges on the turn of Afghan history, which marks the provisional and as such open end of the story and history outlined here. Although in Afghanistan it was never really about human rights, democracy and gender equality for the Empire, tens of thousands of Afghans have taken these promises into their own hands. Working day in and day out, and year in, year out, they have confronted not only violence but also ethno-religious divisions, setting in motion processes of democratisation amidst all the calamity that have made the meaning of human rights a practical one: creating conditions in which every human being can try to freely determine how they live their own life as well as how the community lives together. It is them, first and foremost, who have now been abandoned, whose years of work, whose entire lives have been betrayed.

Right now, most of them just want to get out, and they have every right to. This is why the Empire’s order-enforcing powers are now reaffirming their consensus everywhere by saying: “There must be no repeat of 2015!” This is why they will be negotiating with the Taliban on this as soon as tomorrow, just as they do with Assad, with Erdogan, or with the Haitian gangs. So not being part of this consensus can therefore only mean doing everything to ensure that what was only beginning in 2015 is repeated. Keeping this beginning of politics beyond the Empire and beyond the ethnic, racist and patriarchal violence of fascisms open, however, also means facing the open question of how to counter this violence in Afghanistan, but also in Syria or in Haiti, and how, with it, the violence with which our social relations are maintained can be countered. This question does not a call for a master plan, but rather highlights what must not be forgotten.

Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

Published: 08. September 2021

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